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The Contamination Problem

What is Recycling Contamination?

Contamination is the term used to describe anything that renders your recycling non-recyclable. Recycling contamination also increases labor costs at processing plants as workers try to separate materials. Contamination typically occurs when:

  1. Non-recyclable items are put in collection carts
  2. Food waste (solid or liquid) in recyclable containers has not been thoroughly cleaned or rinsed, soiling paper products into which it comes in contact.
  3. Bags of recyclables are dropped into carts rather than dumping the recyclables in loose. Bags are NOT torn open at the processing plants so the bag and all its contents end up in the trash.

Let's take a look at each of these in a little more detail.

1. Non-recyclable items are put in collection carts

Sometimes in our desire to be "green" we get overzealous with what material can actually be recycled. Please pause before you throw all that packaging into your recycling bin and consider what portions of that item are really recyclable. For example: While your frozen food tray may be marked as recyclable, the plastic film that covers it is not. If you throw the whole thing into your recycling (after rinsing it) and do not remove the plastic film, that is considered contamination and it's possible it will not be recycled.

2. Food waste (solid or liquid) in recyclable containers has not been thoroughly cleaned or rinsed

If you do not properly rinse or clean your recyclable food containers, that food will spill out either in your cart, in transit to the facility, or on the line at the recycling facility resulting in contaminated paper items. When paper products get covered in food waste, they are rendered contaminated and non-recyclable. Please take the extra step to properly rinse your food containers before putting them in your recycling can/cart.

Example of clean glass recycling

Example of clean can recycling

3. Bags of recyclables are dropped into carts

It's tempting to bag your recyclables, but please do not. Bagged recyclables are not accepted in recycling facilities and will most likely be tossed into the trash. Don't do all that work sorting and cleaning your recyclables only to send them to landfill!

Learn More

In this short video, our friends at Marin Sanitary explain how contamination can ruin your best recycling efforts.

Visit our Recycling Services page to learn more about what items can and can't be recycled.